The business of higher education

Fees or no fees, industry wants a financial stake in higher education. What does it mean for the sector as more money comes with corporate strings attached?

Justin Gleeson, manager (left) and Eoghan McCarthy, lead research assistant at AIRO All-Island Research Observatory, mapping facility at the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis (NIRSA) at NUI, Maynooth. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill / THE IRISH TIMES

Justin Gleeson, manager (left) and Eoghan McCarthy, lead research assistant at AIRO All-Island Research Observatory, mapping facility at the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis (NIRSA) at NUI, Maynooth. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill / THE IRISH TIMES


As the debate over who will fund higher education hots up, one funding stream is quietly trickling into the sector. Hard cash from industry for key projects in higher education will become more and more important in the funding of our universities and Institutes of Technology (ITs) and, regardless of whether fees, loans, taxes or philanthropy play a part, corporate funding of higher education – and its inherent implications – is here to stay.

The Forfás Higher Education R&D Survey for the academic year 2010/11, published in November, suggests the percentage of R&D financed by industry in higher education is 3.9 per cent. This compares to a total OECD contribution of 6.3 per cent and the EU-27 contribution of 6.4 per cent. Anecdotally, that percentage has increased in the meantime, with some Irish universities reporting up to 10 per cent funding from industry for research.

The ITs are way ahead. According to Andrew Brownlee, director of research, development and innovation at Institutes of Technology, Ireland, industry collaboration could by now be worth up to 20 per cent of all funding to the sector.

“We put a lot of emphasis on industry collaboration, which can be traced back to the formation of the ITs in the 1970s when we were very much set up to meet industry needs such as training and upskilling,” says Brownlee. “We have expanded our remit to take on more responsibility through research and starting new businesses. We see ourselves as drivers of growth, working in partnerships with industry.”

The relationship between the ITs and business is so close that it is common to find industry partners on accreditation panels, advisory panels, in quality assurance and involved in the development of learning programmes. “Industry is involved in every aspect of IT operations,” says Brownlee.

It’s only going one way, he says. “If you look at the ambition of some ITs to merge and become technological universities, based on an industry-focused ethos, that will be reflected in the funding of institutions. Public funding will become increasingly linked to an ability to bring industry in the door.”

‘Creeping business agenda’
In the university sector, where research is more diverse and includes more academically focused projects, the relationship with industry is less straightforward.

Commentators such as Prof Ronnie Munck of the Defend the University campaign have spoken of “a creeping business agenda subverting the ethos of the university . . . and a reduction of the student search for knowledge and enlightenment to a set of narrow job-related skills.”

Nonetheless, the Higher Education Authority is in the process of developing an overall enterprise engagement strategy: it is Government policy to support more coordination and a stronger national policy direction when it comes to the interface of universities and industry. At Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), which was responsible for committing €300 million to industry collaborations last year (in a 2:1 split with corporate partners), the strategy is picking up pace, with a considerable increase in activity in the past couple of years.

Mark Ferguson, director of SFI, says centres of excellence, seven of which were launched in the past year, are the main engine driving industry engagement at the moment. “Centres of excellence in key research disciplines typically span more than one university or higher education institution. We mandate that 30 per cent of support must come from industry, and 10 per cent of this must be cash, as it’s a good measure of how well-aligned the research is to economic priorities. Most exceed this ratio.

“These are huge public-private partnerships and we intend to develop more in areas such as sustainable food production, software and manufacturing. Irish universities may not feature in the highest ranking HEIs worldwide, but these centres compete at the highest international levels, and the brands of the individual institutions involved benefit as a result.”

Are there risks inherent in this trajectory for academic enquiry that offers no obvious commercial return? What about the lowly undergraduate – does he or she derive any benefit from these remote centres of excellence with their market priorities?
Balance must be struck between the economic and academic agenda, say others, who are particularly fearful for the humanities and social science. Writing in the Defend the University Charter, astrophysicist Paul Higgins has criticised the trajectory of research funding in recent years.

“Compare the goals of the Researchers Careers and Mobility Conference between 2005 (‘To explore the role of the postdoctoral researcher, and its place in the development of a research career’) and 2013 (‘Preparing Doctoral Candidates for the Future . . . Experience from schemes that train doctoral candidates entirely/partly in industry . . . Getting doctoral graduates into employment in industry or other employment sectors’). Has Ireland given up on research as a career?” Higgins asks.

“Furthermore, postgraduate research degrees are being combined with business studies and scientific research proposals are required to have a direct impact on industry. Let industry perform its own product feasibility studies! University research is for exploring new realms of thought, and for expanding the boundaries of what is considered physically possible.”

Tim Conlon of the Higher Education Authority says there are risks inherent in a strategy that puts too much emphasis on economic expediency.

“There’s always a suggestion of a downside risk from a lock-in effect, from placing too many eggs in one basket so to speak. If we overconcentrate our higher-education system on a particular skills area or towards a particular industrial agenda there’s a significant risk that an industry might change or an employer depart.

“It has happened in the past where an industry has disappeared almost overnight due to a significant technological change, but the upside is that where an education provider is in lockstep with an industry partner in research, in the provision of programmes and the imparting of skills, then the problems and challenges of change are shared – this risk is minimised. One example is the pharma or medical industry: higher education works closely with industry to implement or anticipate change.”

Broader argument
Conlon also acknowledges that industry and higher education are not coming from the same place.

“All this of course is only one facet of higher education – there is a broader argument around the value of education for its own sake, for the production of well-rounded citizens, for its ability to produce people who are creative in their thinking and able to think for themselves and actively engage in problem solving.”

So what place do less commercially translatable disciplines, such as the humanities and social sciences, have within higher education/industry interactions? For now, the best commercial investment hope for these disciplines comes from the digital realm.

Sandra Collins is director of the Digital Repository Ireland, a consortium of six academic partners building a national digital infrastructure to preserve and provide access to cultural and social heritage data. Manuscripts, letters, surrogates for paintings, modern art installations and any hard-to-capture cultural ephemera all fall within the remit of the consortium, says Collins, but its work has obvious commercial allure too.

“The research we are doing is designed to preserve cultural and social material so that future generations can see it. The Born Digital programme, for example, is designed to store material currently found on legacy hardware such as floppy disks, and hardware that will become legacy, such as USB devices. This activity is very important for industry, companies such as Google and Microsoft who are concerned about getting value out of data. Humanities and social science skills are really critical in this process as the material needs to be archived and interpreted.”

Big data research cannot protect every subject from commercial eclipse, however. “This is a little bit contentious,” says Collins. “A lot of core humanities and social science researchers say we shouldn’t need to prove ourselves through industry.

“I have been to a number of consultations with the European Commission on this – there are lobby groups working to save funding for fundamental research, to offset the risk of racing ahead on STEM [science, technology engineering and mathematics] and ICT [information and communications technology].

“One large Dutch company working in the area of medical record storage put a system in place but fell down at the implementation stage because the project was found to be in breach of legislation. Social scientists at EC level are saying that earlier involvement from their discipline would have saved the investment.”

There are specific Horizon 2020 calls to bring core humanities research projects into ICT and STEM areas to ensure they are informed by the HSS (humanities and social sciences) sector in the first place, says Collins.

‘Outstanding learning experiences’
At NUI Maynooth, where research funding from industry has hit 10 per cent, the strategy is to work collaboratively with industry as partners in both research and education.

“We are, within our new Maynooth curriculum, working to scale up work placement and co-operative education, as these provide outstanding learning experiences for our students,” says NUI Maynooth president Philip Nolan.

“All of our major research institutes and centres have strong industry connections: the Hamilton Institute, Callan Institute, Innovation Value Institute, the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis, and the National Centre for Geocomputation are excellent examples of how we combine fundamental and important research with immediate applications. The industry contribution to each of these research centres would be 20-30 per cent.”

The university is currently hand-in-glove with partners from ICT, the pharmaceutical industry medical devices and energy. “We would like to see more collaboration with small and medium enterprise and the cultural and creative industries,” says Nolan.

The ideological debate around who should fund higher education will rumble on, but industry and the HEIs are not waiting around for permission to change the game.

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